English Professor Takes a Serious Look at Comedy Films

Don't ask Robert Arner to pick his favorite comedy film. He knows of too many beloved choices to choose just one.

He manages to narrow it down to 15 plus several short films, ranging from 1902 to 1986, for his syllabus for an evening course on Classic Film Comedy, offered this winter through the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of English at UC. Arner hopes to teach students that there is much more to film comedy than laughter.

"Despite TV and the Internet, movies remain arguably the most effective means of mass cultural communication, in large part because they invite a degree of passivity that discourages reflection in the audience," Arner says. "We accept without thinking," he asserts, “ideological assumptions that are inherent in the film and in the technology of the film that we might question or challenge if they were presented in a more factual or straightforward format."

He laments the absence of a course of study leading to film literacy and tries to address this issue as much as feasible in a one-quarter course. He has organized a syllabus that takes films that are supposed to be trivial in the first place - comedy as opposed to serious films such as “Schindler's List” or “Saving Private Ryan” -  and attempts to explain how these films, too, relate to social and political history and may, in fact, constitute critiques of the systems out of which they arise.

"We tend to give more liberty to the clown to speak her or his mind than we are often willing to give to those who make serious speeches, so these comic critiques may be even more radical and far-reaching than so-called polemical or socially conscious movies, such as 'The Grapes of Wrath.'"  

The professor of English and comparative literature organizes this winter's 10-week course chronologically, starting 101 years ago with Cal Stewart in "Uncle Josh At The Moving Picture Show," an early movie made by Thomas Edison. In it, a rural fellow unaccustomed to the city stops in to see a movie.

This film represents an appropriate launching pad for the many themes Arner weaves into the discussion throughout the quarter. One of these themes is the relationship of various audiences to the movies, an emphasis that leads to reading the films with a historically oriented view. "In the early days of film, motion picture shows occasionally attracted the curious from all walks of life, who might come in just to see how this newfangled apparatus worked," Arner points out.

But as a commercial enterprise, Arner explains, movies played mostly to a lower class crowd, often comprised largely of immigrants who did not speak English, but who didn't have to in order to enjoy the silent comedies. Crowded into storefront nickelodeons, audiences would view the wholesale destruction of goods and property, frenetic chase scenes, and mean-spirited or incompetent bosses and cops - all in the guise of humor. These films appealed to a working class and immigrant audience, but were often viewed with alarm by those who wanted to protect the American status quo. These critics viewed such disrespectful portraits of the ruling elite and the men in blue who represented law and order as attacks.

Comedy films, seeking to satisfy such criticism, gradually began to emphasize plot and character over slapstick action, Arner says. This transformation can be charted in the career of Charlie Chaplin as he moved from short subjects created by Sennett's studio to feature-length films made by his own production unit. "The Gold Rush," also on Arner's syllabus, represents the latter.

With the advent of sound, movies and audiences' expectations changed, allowing for a new kind of comic anarchy, such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, Arner explains. He chose the Marx Brothers "Duck Soup," as well as Fields "The Fatal Glass of Beer" and "The Bank Dick" for his classroom line-up.

Arner makes a point of showing the movies during class time, to achieve a "communal experience."

"It’s not only nice to hear them laughing, it is the point of the film, at least as an immediate experience. Films are communal, by definition, just as books are private,” says Arner, whose course this quarter enrolls 43.

If there were more time, the film expert would include a Coen Brothers film, such as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and maybe some Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.  But that would mean displacing one of the films that make up the rest of his movie playbill – including Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in "Miss Fatty's Seaside Lovers" (1915), Buster Keaton's "Cops," Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's "Big Business" and "The Music Box," Chaplin's "Easy Street," Keystones Studios' car-racing "Lizzies of the Field," "Some Like It Hot" and "Dr. Strangelove."

The quarter's closing show, "Hannah and Her Sisters," pays tribute to Woody Allen, whom Arner regards as America's most talented and under-appreciated director. "I regard 'Hannah and Her Sisters' as an absolute masterpiece," he says.

Next time you watch a comedy film, you might want to think about what Professor Arner says: "Comedy films reflect reality as in a fun house mirror. This is true of contemporary comedies no less than old ones," he says. One of the challenges involved in viewing comedies "appreciatively" today is trying to discern the shifting shapes that they reflect, he says. His students, once they complete his course, should find themselves better prepared for that task.

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